What Can We Do Better for Calves?

Updates from the Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium 2022

Compiled by Kelly Driver

Animal social behaviors and those of dairy calves specifically were the lead topics kicking off the 2022 Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, held May 18-19 in Syracuse, NY. In fact, the entire first morning of the conference was devoted to the most recent research. Several other of the interesting presentations throughout the two-day event also related to dairy calves. Here are some brief summaries of the calf related topics.

Animal social behavior. Greetings, groups, courtship, gifting, play, grieving, and both spoken & unspoken acts are the rituals that develop social bonds, explained Dr. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell in the opening keynote address. Dr. O’Connell shared many experiences from her thirty years of research with elephants at Harvard University. Play inspires creativity, while building confidence and trust among animals. And while things like play come naturally to animals, she has found that burial and grief rituals are learned culturally. She has also written a fascinating book, titled “Wild Rituals,” that explores each of these areas in more detail.

Dairy Cattle Behavior. The important developmental benefits of social contact in dairy cattle have been well documented by Dr. Jennifer Van Os and her team at University of Wisconsin in recent years. In her presentation, Dr. Van Os reviewed the many stakeholders in animal welfare and the evolving care of pre-weaned dairy calves in terms of housing and social contact. She shared examples of consumer concerns with cow-calf separation and calves being raised individually, along with her team’s research findings that when given an option, paired calves will spend up to 80% of their time resting together in the same hutch. Additionally, she touched on the benefit of play behavior, resilience to stress, and the cognitive flexibility calves in social housing exhibit. One of her key points was the regarding the adaptability calves need, to learn new things throughout their lifetime, including new feeds, housing and social group changes, and even milking routines. Dr. Van Os also touched on the research that has begun related to cow-calf separation and related consumer sentiments, as well as practical solutions for dairy farms.

The role social bonds and play have in the pre-weaned dairy calf’s development was a key topic at the Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium on May 18-19 in Syracuse, NY. Photo courtesy of Dr. J. Van Os

Calf social housing. The effect of social housing and dairy calf social bonding was presented by Emily Lindner, who is conducting research at the University of Florida. Some 63% of calves in the United States are housed individually (USDA, 2016) as producers cite better calf health and closer management of feed intake as the reasons. However, evidence indicates that social housing does not increase disease. Instead, socially housed calves exhibit increased acceptance of new feeds and solid feed intake overall, less avoidance of novel objects, and the development of social behaviors.

A total of 40 calves were tested at 4 weeks of age, designed to assess the formation of social bonds. Lindner’s research showed that pair-housed calves preferred to be near their pen mate, but spent more time near other calves regardless of their familiarity with them. In contrast, individually housed calves showed no preference between a calf housed within eyesight of them and a calf housed elsewhere when allowed open access to either. The results of Lindner’s work also indicate that physical contact is necessary to the development of social bonds in young dairy calves. According to Lindner, this likely improves calf welfare by allowing social behaviors and easing later social interactions.

Calf e-learning and SOP. Getting the most from calf care standard operating procedures (SOP) was the topic presented by Sophia Neukirchner from Freie Universität Berlin. She kicked off the presentation with a reminder that an SOP should be step-by-step instructions using little text and many pictures to explain the who, what, how and why of any process. A good SOP helps ensure that tasks are completed with consistency, quality and can be very useful when training new employees and as reference material for the entire team. Often, we see SOPs posted in areas of the dairy, written in the native language of the country, but have we considered team members that speak a different language? Neukirchner’s research has centered on the presence of calf-care SOPs and if ready-made SOPs would be useful, including e-learning platforms. Her results showed that 66% of participants felt ready-made calf SOPs would be very helpful on their farm. From the brief e-learning courses offered, she found 85% of participants felt the courses were good for training new employees. Team member confidence to perform the tasks of colostrum testing, tube feeding, and disbudding increased by as much as 33% after completing the e-learning courses.

Disbudding. This important topic is covered in the FARM initiative and other cattle welfare assurance programs.  As caustic paste becomes more widely used for disbudding, the related wound healing times and pain are being studied by Alycia Drwencke at University of California-Davis. Drwencke has studied a group of Holstein and Jersey calves that were disbudded at 3 days old with Dr. Naylor’s caustic paste. Her resulting data indicates that wounds from the paste are sensitive for at least six weeks and take twice as long to heal as cauterized horn bud wounds, which show an average 8.3 weeks for the area to re-epithelialize. In this study, the caustic past wounds had an average 15.2 weeks to be considered healed. Ms. Drwencke will be sharing more about her studies in an upcoming Calf-Tel blog.

The overall take home from the symposium was the dairy industry’s opportunity to review the continuing research and adapt our practices, for both cattle and people, to embrace change. Other topics covered throughout the conference included adapting to new regulations, on-farm labor and animal welfare, consumer and purchasing trends, and grazing research and producer experiences. For more information about the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council, please visit https://www.dcwcouncil.org/.

Kelly Driver, MBA has been involved in the New York dairy industry all her life. In addition to raising dairy calves and replacement heifers, she is the Eastern US & Canada Territory Manager for Calf-Tel. Feel free to contact her at kellydriver@hampelcorp.com with your calf questions or suggest a topic you would like addressed in a future blog.


Drwencke, Alycia M. (2022, May). Wound healing following caustic paste disbudding in dairy calves. Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, Syracuse, NY.

Lindner EE, Gingerich KN, Burke KC, Doyle SB, Miller-Cushon EK. Effects of Social Housing on Dairy Calf Social Bonding. Animals. 2022; 12(7):821. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12070821

Neukirchner, Sophia. (2022, May). E-learning courses are a popular tool to implement SOPs in calf care. Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, Syracuse, NY.

O’Connell, Caitlin (2022, May). Animal social behavior. Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, Syracuse, NY.

Van Os, Jennifer. (2022, May). Why social behavior matters for cattle welfare. Dairy Cattle Welfare Symposium, Syracuse, NY.

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